Ron McCraw, is an Access and Recreation Manager with Scottish Natural Heritage. He is also an advocate of the value of John Muir’s legacy. As he explains below we stand on the cusp of an exceptional opportunity to celebrate and take stock of Muir’s work and see how his views apply to our modern day lifestyles.
A new John Muir Way opens in Scotland on 21 April this year, running from Helensburgh to Dunbar, and aiming to encourage more people to enjoy nature the outdoors. There is also a John Muir Festival (17-26 April) and a John Muir Conference in May. This will all add to the good work of the John Muir Trust in protecting Scotland’s wilderness areas and engaging people practically through John Muir Awards. Hopefully this will lead to a greater awareness in Scotland of Muir and his achievements.
But what did he really stand for?
There’s growing talk about the relevance of John Muir (1838 – 1914) to our lives today. John Muir’s legacy and philosophy are detailed in Passion for Nature (2008), Donald Worster’s excellent biography. His huge political and practical environmental achievements are well acknowledged, particularly his influence in creating the US National Parks system. However, the closing paragraphs question the extent to which Muir’s values in nature have penetrated today’s society. For him and other environmental philosophers, nature had a value in its own right, providing a strong spiritual dimension to their lives, as it also did for Robert Burns and William Wordsworth. Worster asks,
“Can contact with nature inspire people to a higher ethic, a higher decency? Or is the human race by and large incapable of reverence, restraint, generosity or vision? Have we truly learned to respect a nature that we did not create, a world independent of us, or do we see only the hand of mankind wherever we look?”
Arguably, John Muir’s commentaries on the money driven US society of the late 1800’s are relevant today. As in the US in his day, a huge proportion of the Scottish population are not connected to nature. However, there is lots of good work being done by public bodies and the voluntary sector: making the outdoors more accessible, promoting it better and improving the understanding of habitats and species. But, what is the sum of all this activity in influencing people’s values?
Perhaps a fundamental question is what society values nature for. Is it as a natural asset – the way it underpins tourism and the economy? Is it for the wild places and green networks which enhance our quality of life, or should there be more emphasis on people valuing nature for its own sake? Muir believed in the power of nature as an essential place of retreat from busy lifestyles, through which people could restore and maintain their health and well-being. He believed in equality with living things and questioned the emphasis on economic growth and consumerism at the expense of nature and spiritual values founded on it. But Muir was no Luddite – as a scientist, fruit grower and businessman, he understood the practicalities of living.
So, should John Muir’s philosophy be brought alive to play a more contemporary role in Scotland today? How do we encourage more people to value nature it for its own sake? John Muir was a great communicator, making connections with and influencing people. What key messages are needed now to connect with more people?
I’ll finish with one of my favourite John Muir quotes about nature. As relevant today as it was when he wrote it – When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
For the John Muir Festival visit http://www.johnmuirfestival.com/
For the John Muir Conference see http://johnmuir100.com/
For more information on the John Muir Way please see http://www.snh.gov.uk/enjoying-the-outdoors/homecoming-scotland-2014/celebrate-john-muir/john-muir-way/
For the John Muir facebook page go to https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-John-Muir-Way-Slighe-Iain-Muir/488424531212788?ref=hl
Image of the Kelpies courtesy of The Helix, Falkirk. Image of John Muir courtesy of Sierra Club USA, image of walker (c) Becky Duncan/SNH.